Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Mountains overlook an old French tank, next to the Dien Bien Phu runway
The twin propellers of the ATR-72 hum loudly, as our plane flies high over green, forest covered mountains.  Looking out the window, white clouds below seem to be skipping across the mountain tops of northwestern Vietnam. A long brown river curves between the peaks, meandering through the remote landscape below. Scanning the horizon, I see very few signs of civilization. I’m flying over rugged terrain; mountains very close to the Laotian border. Passing over a final ridge, the mountains part to make way for a long valley. My ears pop as the pilot dips our wings, descending to a lone runway down on the valley floor.

Upon landing, I follow two old Vietnamese men out the plane's door, and onto the tarmac. These two seniors have been here before; they're war veterans, but they didn’t fight Americans. One sports a long Ho Chi Minh beard. Although wearing civilian clothes, they both wear Vietnamese Army pith helmets over their greying hair.

Down at the end of the airstrip, I make
Vietnamese victory monument overlooks the town
out the outline of an old wrecked tank sitting in the grass. This is a civilian airport now, but originally this was a runway on a French military base. In 1954, world news focused on this remote Vietnamese valley. A massive battle took place for control of this runway, and the French base surrounding it. This remote place became a hell for the French soldiers who fought here, and a victory for the Viet Minh. This is where Vietnamese pride was restored, and where Vietnam’s independence was re-established. This is Dien Bien Phu.

When the Viet Minh defeated the French Army here after a 57 day siege, the western world was stunned. Their alarm was not just about the loss of another distant colony. The cold war was already in full swing, so western countries were shocked that for the first time, a European army had been decisively defeated by a communist army.

I debated whether I should come here or not, since the battle for Dien Bien Phu took place long before the American War. But, I decided the journey here was necessary. If I was to really understand Vietnam today, I had to travel to the battlefield where Vietnam’s independence was reborn in the past.

Since I’ve arrived in Dien Bien Phu close to the battle’s anniversary, my trip coincides with half price flights offered by Vietnam Airlines for veterans to return to the battlefield. That explains the two old vets on my flight. Not that the regular fare is too expensive for me; my regular fare ticket was only $112 roundtrip from Hanoi. Passing through the small terminal, the veterans leave with some local soldiers, and I taxi off to my hotel. After dropping my luggage, I head out to see the town.

Lizards on sale in the Dien Bien Phu market!
After the shooting stopped here in 1954, the Vietnamese rebuilt this former battlefield into a major regional town. Proud of their victory in Dien Bien Phu, it was named capital of Lai Chau Province. It took a great deal of labor to transform this ruined valley full of bomb craters into a provincial capital. After the French surrender, there wasn’t much left above ground that was habitable. Rebuilding took years. To improve access to Dien Bien Phu, the rugged road through the mountains was improved and paved into a highway. I could have taken that cheaper road route to get here, but that would have meant enduring a nauseating 14 hour bus ride through the mountains to travel here all the way from Hanoi. With that in mind, I opted for a flight. 

As modern homes were built Dien Bien Phu was reborn, and business grew. A nearby border crossing has improved commerce to Laos, though trade is limited. As I walk around town, I find more construction is in progress in this growing town. Building here can still be hazardous today, with tons of old shells buried underground. Unexploded munitions left over from the long battle still remain scattered all over the valley.

Hill tribe women in the town market
Heading through downtown, I walk into a street market. A chicken wire container catches my eye, and within is a commodity that I’ve never seen sold in a market anywhere. Lizards! Grey with white stripes, there are more than 30 of the foot long lizards packed inside. I doubt that the lady vendor is selling these as pets. Could they be for some kind of local delicacy?

Also in the market, I see shoppers from local hill tribes, wearing colorful woven clothing and head dresses. There are Hmong and Thais still living in town, while others drove down on motorbikes from surrounding mountain villages. A century ago hill tribe folk made up the majority of the provincial population, but they are gradually being outnumbered. As more ethnic Vietnamese move in, Dien Bien Phu has surpassed 20,000 residents. 

Leaving the market, I make my way on foot to the battle site known as Eliane 2. This was one of many heavily fortified,  hilltop French firebases around the valley, and was key to their overall defense. The town’s main street goes right by the base of the hill, and I head for the top. Ascending the hill I pass barbed wire, an old captured tank, and reach the command bunker at the peak.

Trenches from the 'Eliane 2' battle
Fighting here was much like WWI trench warfare
Like I had seen at the Khe Sanh battle site, some bunkers and trenches of this old stronghold have been rebuilt. With visitors and veterans returning to Dien Bien Phu, they had to make this former battleground secure for tourists. To do so, the army removed all the unexploded munitions and landmines across Eliane 2. Then they repaired the old dugouts, redug the trenches, and installed these strange, fake sandbags made of concrete. Like most of the other former foreign bases in Vietnam, the original bunkers were probably all torn apart by locals after the war for scrap. What’s here now may not be authentic material, but at least it’s fairly safe.

Many trenches zig-zag around the hillside. French Foreign Legion troops dug in deeply, building a trench network to hold the line against advancing Viet Minh. Stepping down into a trench, I peer into some of the bunkers along the old trench line. Life for all the French forces trapped here was dirty, muddy, and miserable. Fighting here was fierce trench warfare, much like the fighting on the Western Front of France  during World War I.

Looking out of an old 'Eliane 2' bunker, new houses can be seen
A huge bomb crater from the battle has been preserved on the hill

I look up out of the trench, and I’m surprised to see one of the old Vietnamese veterans who was on my flight walking nearby. It’s the shorter vet with the goatee, and he has changed out of his civilian clothes into a full army uniform. I’m astonished at the number of medals he’s wearing; there must be 15 of them across his chest. I wonder if he fought here, as Eliane 2 saw some of the most intense fighting of the battle, including hand to hand combat. Paratroopers and French Legionnaires fought off wave after wave of Viet Minh attackers day and night, until they finally ran out of ammunition and were overwhelmed.
A Vietnamese war veteran walks alone on the old 'Eliane 2' battlefield of Dien Bien Phu
As I watch the old Viet Minh soldier, he looks over the trenches, slowly walking alone across the quiet hillside. Then he stops, and gazes down the hill. What he’s looking at, is a large military cemetery across the street, below Eliane 2. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of his dead Vietnamese compatriots are buried there. So many men died in the long fight for this strategic hill.

Still wearing his pith helmet, the old veteran’s face looks stoic, but I can tell that he’s in deep thought. I wonder what he’s thinking. Is he remembering the bloody battle for this hill, more than a half century ago? Is he recalling the loss of old friends, buried beneath those headstones?

Then he turns and walks away, rejoining a group of veterans further down the hill. It doesn’t matter what side a soldier was on, or what war he was in. So much of the pain that a war veteran endures, is endured alone.

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